Gael Garcia Bernal may not be the biggest celebrity currently at the Cannes Film Festival, but this year, he’s one of the most influential. As a member of the jury for the festival’s Competition section, the Mexican actor has been watching movies from all around the world over the past two weeks along with his fellow jurors, a group that includes Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Willem Dafoe.
But even if the Cannes experience is dominating his schedule at the moment, Bernal has plenty of reasons to take a pause: At the festival, he stars in out-of-competition entry “El Ardor,” an unconventional western pastiche set in the Argentinean rain forest that marks the first time Bernal has played something close to an action star. In director Pablo Fendrik’s visually compelling narrative, Bernal plays a mysterious figure alternately evading and stalking a group of murderous thieves who plunder land from helpless locals. Later this year, Bernal will play a different type of survivalist as the leading man in “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater,” based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir about his time spent imprisoned by the Iranian government.
These unconventional roles speak to Bernal’s distinctive career path, which has included acclaimed titles ranging from “Amores Perros” to “Y tu mamá también” and last year’s Oscar-nominated “No.” After catching a morning screening for his jury duty, Bernal sat down with Indiewire at the Palais des Festivals to discuss his experience at the festival, his latest roles, and which kinds of project he simply won’t do.
So how’s it going so far?
Great. I’m at a film festival watching movies. Normally for me, it’s the other way around. Usually I just see one. In this case, I’m loving it. I got this experience also when I was president of the Camera D’Or jury in 2010. That day I saw 25 films. Fuck, that was complicated. I would see three or four a day. Here it’s only two a day.
Everyone’s placing bets on which movie will win.
I know. Do you know what I’m doing? Whenever I run across something about this, I’m completely not listening to it. Just blocking it out.
How does the festival enforce your secrecy about the jury proceedings?
They kind of just tell you that there will be an accident if you talk about it. [laughs]
The French are good at imposing rules.
Exactly. No, I mean, you can’t say anything.
Your out of competition film, “El Ardor,” finds you running around the rain forest killing bad guys. It’s sort of like your “Rambo” moment. Which made me wonder: Are you still doing that “Zorro” movie?
I don’t know. Obviously when they asked me, it was that the whole adventure film aspect that appealed to me. I hadn’t done that. I wanted to experience it, with all its action sequences and everything. It’s just a very pure, elemental cinematic form. And that’s as far as the conversations have gone. I don’t know who is even attached as director.
I never considered you as someone who wanted to be an action star. So when you were running around shirtless killing people in “El Ardor,” which starts out low key and then turns into a western by the very end, I was surprised—to say the least.
It falls into a weird middle ground. It’s very contemplative in moments and the action is sometimes very standard, archetypical action sequences, with the traps being laid, or whatever. Then it holds another kind of atmosphere. It wasn’t going to only be about the stunts or the very clear character arc—which the character obviously doesn’t have. It still stays very mysterious.
It looks like it was a very physical experience.
We shot it in five weeks. In one day, we did 35 shots, or something like that. We were going really quick and with very little money and a lot of freedom as well. There were no restrictions and we could shoot wherever we wanted. We had seen a lot of westerns before doing it, just as research. What I knew before doing it, what I felt before doing it, was that this film naturally took the shape of a western. It’s not that it was a western applied to a certain context. It was the other way around. It was the context itself that called for a western to be made out of this.
Why? It’s not exactly set in the West.
Because it’s a place that is bountiful with resources and there is the lurking, danger of the world economy having to capitalize that. And I suppose to other common westerns or even non-common westerns, it is not about the fall of the way of living or the decay of mankind or morals or ethics. It is basically just about [director] Pablo [Fendrik] saying we should not be in the jungle. His thesis is that we should not be in that place. Or perhaps we should be, but under that strange balance that is impossible for us to understand, the delicate balance that certain indigenous people have, small communities of indigenous people. It’s this place that is wide and ambitious and lawless. The context completely clashes with a western.
Can you elaborate on that idea? What’s wrong with living in the jungle?
This thing of Pablo’s—I don’t think it’s actually a thesis—I think it’s more an axiom of his to say that we shouldn’t live in the jungle and let’s explore why we shouldn’t and why there is no certainty in knowing that we shouldn’t. It is just that there are many facts that suggest humans have to destroy the environment for us to be able to live in the jungle. It is very hard to find that balance. The biggest indigenous culture that flourished in those areas before the Spanish came didn’t live in the jungle. They lived in the coastlines. And because of the Spanish and Portuguese, they started to go into the jungle and they started to take on other traditions from other people from inside the jungles. Initially the cultures that flourished weren’t in the jungle. And so therefore there is a sense that we shouldn’t be in the jungle.
How did that point come across to you while you were in production?
It was hard shooting it. It gets cold in the jungle. It’s very wet. And man, the mosquitoes are a nuisance. As Herzog says about the jungle—he calls it grotesque, he says something about the obscenity of the jungle. It is a place that he feels very uncomfortable it is. And it was very uncomfortable. We had to do those scenes where we were sitting still and looking at each other [with Alice Braga]. We were wearing mosquito spray. You can see the richness of the place. The earth is red and full of iron. It’s like this strange blue, red and green mixture. It’s incredible to shoot on and to do a film there. But also we had to appeal to that kind of balance as well, while shooting it. If it rains, we should stop, because there’s no way we could do anything about it.
Did you shoot “Rosewater” right after that?
Yes. Right after that.
So you went from the Argentinan jungle to the Middle East.
I went straight from there to Jordan during Ramadan to shoot. I just saw Jon [Stewart] here for 10 minutes. Apparently it’s at the market.
Have you seen the movie yet?
Yeah, I’ve seen it.
And how do you feel?
I mean—man, I’m more aware of it now. It’s the film I’ve seen but nobody else has seen. I still feel like it’s not real. It’s still a work of progress even though it’s already finished. I like it, but you never know. I saw it when doing the final mix, the dubbing and the voiceovers in New York.
And I assume you don’t have a Latin American accent.
I’m a Farsi-speaking man. That was new.
Do you speak Farsi in the film?
No. It’s a film that is in English. And hopefully that is going to work out. One never knows. But we did it there in Jordan and it was great to work with people from all over the world.
There’s so much attention on that project. It must have been really interesting to back away from all that during the production.
Yeah, man—and, also, Jon is a great guy, a lovely guy, really intelligent.
Was there anything that was surprising to you about working with him giving that you had a different relationship to him as a TV personality?
It’s very surprising that he holds the character of Jon Stewart really well. It’s him, but he holds it all the time. It’s the tiredness and everything. He keeps on pulling it around on set. He’s hilarious and sensitive and makes everyone feel really comfortable. He’s really thankful as well. He feels very lucky. I don’t how he managed because he went from finishing to it straight into the TV program and editing it. That was insane.
It’s starting to look like you like doing projects with socio-political elements — from “No” to “El Ardor” to “Rosewater.” Sounds like a trend.
I think I’m definitely shifting towards that direction. It has to be worthwhile.
Are you turning down a lot of other offers?
I have two kids so it’s hard to manage to do all of this. It has to be really worth it.
What kind of stuff do people offer you that they think is you, but is completely off base?
It has been constant: This B-movie type — Latino characters who are the third role in the movie. They have this thing like, “Here comes the Latin American revolutionary!” [laughs] Stuff like that. It has become an archetype in a way, but if it forms part of a bigger joke it’s fantastic. It feels like they are offering you business deals rather than doing a movie. When I’ve been in situations having to earn money for whatever reason, I feel a lot the business aspects of things. Like, maybe I should do this or that. But fortunately I’m able to do these great projects. I mean, the budgets don’t go above $4 million. They are an act of faith, these films.